With another season of Lightning hockey starting up, I've been a bit busy shaking the rust off in the broadcast booth. Even though I haven't posted anything in about two weeks, I was planning for several days to post something today just about the Rays' lack of success against good teams down the stretch. But so much has happened and has been said in the past few days, I have to step back and take a good look at this club. Some things that have happened or have been said recently, unfortunately, lead me to say, "I told ya so".
I remember at some point during the homestand against Toronto three weeks ago, feeling really good about the team. At the end of the Toronto series, the Rays were 60-83, which normally isn't a record you'd feel good about. But this was different. This was 16 games after the legendary Steve Henderson "talk" after an embarassing loss to Oakland. During that stretch, the Rays went 12-4, threatened to leave the A.L. East basement since June 26th, and looked pretty good at topping the 70-win level for the first time in franchise history. Three weeks later I have more questions than answers on how good this team is, how good this team really could be, and how commited the NDRO really is to bringing a winner to Tampa Bay (or as the new uniforms identify the area, "Rays").
The more I thought about what has transpired over the past three weeks, and in particular the last three days, the more I realized I saw quite a bit of this weeks and months ago. Consider these "I told ya so" moments:
Despite what the Rays think, they're still not good enough to face the A.L. East beasts just yet.
This was the original point of my intended column, until Stuart Sternberg, Scott Kazmir, and Delmon Young spoke up this weekend (more on them in a bit). At the point of 60-83, Joe Maddon and several players spoke of the upcoming 10-game road trip as a test. A sort of a "run through" for postseason play, being involved in games that matter which the team hoped would start as soon as next season. The team was going to play a Red Sox team trying to keep the Yankees away in the East, a Mariners team fighting for its playoff life, and an Angels team looking to lock up the West. When the Rays came home it was the Red Sox again, the pesky Yankees, and finally a Blue Jays team looking to end on a positive note in third place.
The stretch of games was hardly positive, and overall frustrating for Rays fans. In Boston and Seattle, the bullpen blew monstrous leads in four-straight games. In Anaheim, the Santa Ana winds got a jump start this year with an amazing 36 Rays strikeouts in just three games. The road trip that was supposed to be somewhat "meaningful" ended with a 3-7 thud. At home it didn't get any better. The Red Sox and Yankees each clinched playoff spots at Tropicana Field. In Toronto, the Rays salvaged one win in the three-game series. After 60-83, the Rays went 6-13 against division rivals and playoff-caliber teams.
No matter how savvy the Rays' management claims to be, no matter how efficient the Rays have been, no matter how many "low-risk, high-reward" moves have been made, this team is not YET good enough to beat the Yankees, Red Sox, and Angels of MLB right now. Notice I said "yet". With a veteran starter, another bullpen arm, and a veteran catcher and/or shortstop this team could really be something next season and beyond. If only Stuart Sternberg would spend the appropriate amount of money...
It would be nice if Sternberg spent every dollar on every dire need of the Rays, but I suspect he won't.
Throughout the season most visitors to the website agreed on a few things: the pitching staff (while improved since July 31st) still needs improvement, Dioner Navarro may not be the best catcher for this club, and a new shortstop would be nice. To accomplish this, the NDRO would probably have to spend about $20 million on the four or five DECENT players to fill those roles. On top of the pay increases for Carl Crawford, Scott Kazmir, and Carlos Pena, the team would have to increase payroll about $10 million more for a grand total of $30 million to keep the star core players around and bring in a few key players to get closer to .500 and maybe a playoff spot. Sternberg recently said he expects payroll to go up 20% (or a little bit more) next year. That sounds all nice and good until you do the math. Twenty percent of $24 million is $4.8 million. Hmmm... something doesn't add up here.
That $24 million is based on opening day payroll. Since a few players have earned bonuses, the technical end of the year payroll is about $28 million. Still, 20% of $28 million in $5.6 million. Let's split that down the middle and call the payroll increase $5.2 million. That figure alone is probably what Carlos Pena will get... PERIOD. That's not accounting for Kazmir's arbitration decision (likely around $3 million), Crawford's higher contract ($5.25 million), Al Reyes' new contract (roughly $250,000 more), and let's not forget the $2.25 million in urgent medical care for Rocco Baldelli in 2008. Just keeping this exact same team together (including offers to non-arbitration eligible players) will require a payroll increase of roughly $9 million, or 30%. To really take care of what the Rays are missing, the team would have to increase its payroll about 100% to the $50-$60 million range. So what does that say about the Rays in 2008? Expect to see the Rays of 2007, or a reasonable facsimile of, in 2008. Here we come, 66-96!
And yes, Sternberg's declaration when he took over majority ownership in 2005 that payroll would increase 20% is accurate. But keep in mind payroll was slashed 32% from opening day 2006 to opening day 2007. Two steps backwards before taking two steps forward? You be the judge.
We may have a few Wall Street kids running this operation, not baseball fans intent on winning.
One of Sternberg's recent comments that has thrown some poo in the fan is his claim that long-term deals for guys like Kazmir, Pena, and James Shields can be done "If the price is right". Well what does that mean? Obviously you don't want to overpay for talent, but at the same time you have to realize in order to keep the talent you have you have to pony up the big bucks. Baseball's marketplace has changed dramatically over the past few years. Moneyball, or Moneyball-like plans from five or six years ago, have gone by the wayside. Having one of the top payrolls in MLB doesn't necessarily guarantee success, but you still have to do more than spend in the high 20s or low 30s. Just take a look at the teams that are in the playoffs. The lowest-spending playoff team is Arizona (spending $52 million at the start of the season, before the Eric Byrnes deal came down). Cleveland was at $61 million. Everyone else is around $100 million.
As the market has changed over the past few years, becoming a spend big and hope for the best market, Moneyball-like teams have been left in the dust. The Twins and the A's, the supermodels of winning thrifty, have finished 2007 in third place in their division and well under .500. Yet both of these teams, claiming to be bleeding money, are doing just fine according to Forbes magazine. In 2006, both teams pulled in roughly $14.5 million each. The Twins have had only one season of operating income loss ($7 million in 2004) since 2000. The A's, and this shouldn't come as a surprise, haven't lost a single dime since 1998. Yet both teams throw up their hands when star players ask for money they rightly deserve. Keep in mind the Twins and A's haven't won a World Series since 1991. Both teams haven't even APPEARED in a Fall Classic since they won it in 1991 and 1989, respectively.
The Rays' Moneyball-esque plan is less about building a long-term winner. It is more about making a profit. Sternberg is a Wall Street guy. He knows how to turn a profit, and if you think he's going into this just to have some winning baseball here, you're sadly mistaken.
The Rays need a veteran starter to show the youngsters in the rotation the ropes.
That's a drum I've been beating for a very long time, and quite a few people have challenged me on it. May I introduce to you Scott Kazmir, who had this to say; "I think that would be pretty good to have - a couple veteran guys to really show us the way and how to go about winning and staying consistent throughout the whole season."
This is one of the top guys on the staff people. He's been told all his life he's good, and he's a bit stubborn. Yet even he knows he, and the rest of the staff, need some assistance. They need a Charlie Liebrandt, a guy who is affordable but who has been around 10 or 15 years. Look at Kenny Rogers in Detroit. Look at Jamie Moyer in Philadelphia. Having a staff of kids will have you talking about the future. Having a veteran to lead the way will have you talking about the playoffs... sooner than later.
Joe Maddon's "easy does it" attitude will come back to haunt him when it's time to play the bad cop.
The Delmon Young incident following Saturday's loss in Toronto makes this point more prominent. Maddon's laid back style turned the clubhouse into a country club. When it came time to lay down the law, some of the players would laugh back. Even though Maddon addressed the hustle issue to Young before behind closed doors, when it came time to make Young an example Young shot back.
What Young did was inexcusable, but the groundwork had already been laid. Even though he apologized to Maddon today, Young will not be the last player to take advantage of the atmosphere of the club. The turning the corner from teaching to winning, from nurturing to tough love, will be harder for Maddon than he first thought.
The Rays are looking to make a wise business move, and make them the true "Florida" team.
They floated out the idea of being called the "Florida Rays" and very few people liked it. So the next best thing to do was drop "Tampa Bay" from the road jerseys. Personally, I'm not as upset about this as some people are. There are only 30 teams in Major League Baseball, and in the 10 years of existence for the Rays most every baseball fan knows the team plays in the Tampa Bay area.
This is a business move by the DRO, just another step in the regionalization of the team. Much like Tampa doesn't identify with St. Pete, and vice-versa, Port Charlotte, Orlando, and Vero Beach don't identify. Just by branding the team "Rays", while taking a bit of the local identity out, the organization opens up more to the rest of the state. The Tampa Bay area, thanks mostly to Vince Namoli, is turned off by the Rays. By reaching out to other areas, the pool to draw interest from becomes larger. With the NDRO taking the slow route to (hopefully) building a winner, it needs as many fans outside of the Bay area to offset the lost ones from within the area.
I still prefer the organization build a winner, and then pull from elsewhere because everyone wants to watch a winner. The NDRO prefers the other way. Think of it what you will.
There's been a lot said recently, a lot of things that make you scratch your head over promises made almost two years ago when the change of ownership happened. I always remind people that Rome wasn't built in a day, and the promises of the NDRO in the winter of 2005 that this team would be a contender by 2008 or 2009 was too optimistic on their part. But at the same time the reality is despite the numerous changes to the people on the field, and the patting on the back by those off the field who made some shrewd moves this season, the team is just ONE WIN better than it was last season. This is a team that had a winning percentage against just FIVE of their 18 opponents. None of those five play in the A.L. East.
Stuart Sternberg isn't hurting for money. He's a business man, and good business men sell their bad investments before they lose more money. If it was really really tough to own this team, he would have (or should have) sold this team. This market is big enough, it has enough money to support a big league team, and the team gets its fair amount of money from broadcast contracts and luxury tax. If he really wants a winner, he'll take the risks and giant leaps of faith it takes to turn a laughing stock into a winner.
This area deserves a winner, we've been tagged losers too long. It's quite possible the team on the field now can single-handedly turn things around within the next couple of years. It's realistic the team on the field now won't be able to do that by itself. There are very few examples of a 100% pure youth team doing what the Rays are trying to do. Even Sternberg admits the team likely won't contend next season.
For years, even back when Namoli owned the team, I've said I hope the Rays prove me wrong. I hope everything I've complained about is off the target, and that this team can actually pull off the nearly impossible in winning with solely what it has now. If that day does happen, then point at me and I will say I was wrong.
Until then, don't say I didn't tell ya so.
Other notes from outside of Raysland:
- "I told ya so, part II": Despite a bad start, the Yankees made the playoffs. After the All-Star game, Bobby Abreu hit .309 with 11 homers and 58 RBI living up to his career trend. Take that, New York writers and baseball "experts".
- When Alex Rodriguez flees the Yankees, the New York media will be in a tizzy. In truth, it was their constant hounding of him and their constant desire to pit him against Derek Jeter that will drive him out of town.
- Charlie Manuel just saved his job.
- Willie Randolph just lost his.
- On July 31st the Brewers were just one game ahead of the Cubs in the N.L. Central. The Brewers failed to make any significant trades to improve the ballclub. Milwaukee was eliminated from contention yesterday as the Cubs took the division.
- Finally, speaking of the Brewers, I think the three-game suspension of Seth McClung was a bit too much. I mean, can you really prove that inside pitch to Albert Pujols was intentional? This is Seth McClung we're talking about after all.